We must keep our hawker heritage alive
Hong Kong's living heritage of street vendors and bazaars will be lost forever unless the city's hawker policy changes from one of squeezing their numbers to managing them properly. Public sentiment on the matter has changed dramatically this year: even the chief executive's policy address referred to plans to preserve street bazaars.
To manage the explosion of hawkers during the post-war influx of migrants, the government established the Hawker Control Department in 1960. At its peak, Hong Kong had 60,000 hawkers, which raised serious concerns about nuisance, obstruction and hygiene. In 1972, a policy was adopted to stop issuing new licences and ultimately get rid of all hawkers. In 2000, the director of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department was put in charge of managing hawkers. His policy objective was to reduce their numbers, issuing no new licences.
The result of this policy is evident: markets, cooked food stalls (24 remaining) and ice-cream vendors (30 remaining) are rapidly disappearing from Hong Kong's street scene. The operations of licence holders who are in their 70s and 80s are condoned as a welfare measure. The few young people who operate stalls do so in the grey legal area of 'helper licences'. The allotted spaces are much smaller than the actual area used, creating constant conflict with enforcement officers.
This negative hawker-control policy explains the dilapidated state of street markets. Government departments lack incentives to provide the necessary services - including electricity, drainage and storage - to ensure the markets are clean, hygienic and efficient. Moreover, the stalls' makeshift fabrication reflects their operators' sense of impermanence.
But a turn of the tide in favour of street hawkers became evident on January 17 this year. A motion initiated by the Liberal Party's Vincent Fang Kang, urging the retention of 'bazaars with local characteristics', was passed by the Legislative Council. Last month, Legco passed a motion by Wong Kwok-hing - with, again, near-unanimous support - urging the government to conduct a comprehensive review of policies on hawker licensing and management, and to handle licence renewals with flexibility.
The secretary for development has announced plans to preserve Tai Yuen Street and Cross Street by letting licensed hawker pitches remain. And the Urban Renewal Authority has confirmed that it wants to revitalise the bazaars in Peel, Graham and Gage streets. But both initiatives can be realised only through a dramatic U-turn on hawker policy.
A new licensing regime is also needed to ensure that new public spaces become vibrant and lively, with dynamic economic activities. The Harbourfront Enhancement Committee is studying how to manage the new public spaces around Victoria Harbour, and plans for the West Kowloon cultural district call for allowances for street activities. This month, ice-cream hawkers called on the government to revive the dying industry by reissuing licences - prohibited since 1993.
The need for a new, positive hawker policy is urgent not just because of the advanced age of the last remaining hawkers. The streets and pavements they use are coveted by developers and the Urban Renewal Authority, for increased traffic linked to planned new developments. Once those developments are locked in, the Transport Department will have a hard time designating these areas for hawkers.
Time is therefore of the essence. The director for Food and Environmental Hygiene must announce his interim measures to safeguard the last remnants of our street economy. He must set out public consultations on a system that will revitalise this important aspect of Hong Kong's culture, economy, quality of life and tourism appeal.
Paul Zimmerman is the founder of Designing Hong Kong